You remember what regeneration looks like: Harnessing the body’s own repair mechanisms and manipulating them in a controlled way to treat disease. Scientists have already been successful with regenerating a thymus, and even bioprinters are making human tissues at an accelerated rate.
But this new breakthrough was thought to be impossible. Scientists at Tufts University School of Medicine have shown that by treating spinal cord injuries in rats with a specific protein already found in the body, they can encourage sensory neurons to regrow and function over large distances. This news beats any previous records of regrowth by a factor of ten!
“This is a significantly longer length of Central Nervous System regeneration than has been reported earlier,” Eric Frank, one of the authors of the study, told IFLScience. “But [there’s] still a long way to go!”
Scientists first simulated crushed spinal cord injuries in lab rats according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Then, by treating the breakage with a specific protein already produced by the body, called artemin, they encouraged the damaged nerve fibers to grow an incredible 4 centimeters (1.5 inches). After a few weeks of rehabilitation, the regenerated neurons were able to pass signals along the whole length of the spine.
The unprecedented regrowth of neurons isn’t the only good news from this study. The treatment was also able to accurately “plug” regrown neurons back into their original places. This avoids the troubling result of “mixed up” or “crisscrossed” nerve fibers that previous studies always seemed to run into. By using the artesian protein, however, the new nerves were able to find their way back to the right spot and connect up correctly.
This suggests that there is some form of chemical guidance telling the neuron where to go that remains in the nerve fibers even into adulthood. It’s a great discovery, since encouraging neurons to grow is notoriously difficult. Just as one protein encourages growth in nerve fibers (artemin), another protein develops later in life that produces chemicals to discourage nerve fiber growth. Overcoming an aging body is quite the uphill battle it seems.
The only other caveat to this study is that it only applies to sensory neurons at the moment. But if the protein treatment works for one group of neurons, then it should work for other types of neurons. “If it becomes possible to get these other types of nerve fibres to regenerate for long distances as well, there is a reasonable chance that they can also grow back to their original target areas,” Frank explained.
If scientists can just get other types of nerve cells—such as motor neurons—to regenerate and reconnect in the same way they’ve managed with these sensory neurons, then we’d be moving a huge step forward in reversing paralysis, maybe even other types of nerve related illnesses. Science keeps unlocking the human body’s secrets—and we love it more and more with each new breakthrough!
photo credit: iflscience.com